One of my many bad habits is spending too much time scrolling through the comment sections on controversial Facebook posts and internet news articles. I know what I’m going to see will often disgust and anger me, but sometimes I do it anyway, in the vain hope that this time I will finally see some sensible remarks and reasonable arguments. (I would love to say that this means I’m an optimist, but I think it really just means I’m the sort who tends to repeat her mistakes.) Still, even bad experiences can be educational and I have learned a thing or two while wading through the muck and mire of on-line commentary.
First and foremost, lots of people simply can’t stand the idea that there are those who disagree with them, on anything, and the very idea of it sends them into a frenzy of self-righteous rage. Which they then need to express, as often as possible, in case someone missed it the first few dozen times they vented in cyberspace. The second thing I learned is more subtle, so it took me a while to spot it. But eventually I noticed that people put way more time and energy discussing what they believe their “enemies” think and feel than they do in expressing their own opinions.
Phrases containing the word “they” dominate the threads, and are inevitably followed by all kinds of nasty statements. “They” don’t care about the poor; “they” hate America; “they” have no sense of personal responsibility; and so on and so on. It doesn’t matter if the people commenting are conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, black or white, urban or rural, they all seem quite sure they know exactly what those “other” people are thinking, and they despise them for it. Which isn’t exactly a recipe for world peace.
I know that we are living in scary times and that there is much going on around us that can make us feel angry and afraid, and that we all want our voices to be heard. And we all do have the right to make our voices heard. But I think that the trick is to stick to expressing our own beliefs rather than trying to put words in other people’s mouths and thoughts in other people’s heads. Because unless we have asked someone who is different from us what he or she thinks, and then actually listened, really listened, to their answer, the fact is that we don’t have any idea. I don’t know what your experience is, but whenever someone else tells exactly me what I believe, they are usually wrong.
I think the best thing we can do is voice our own concerns and express our own ideas in the hope that they will make a difference. And I believe that instead of saying “They believe such and such,” it’s so much more effective to say “I believe in such and such,” because those words communicate rather than alienate. Mostly, I believe that if we truly want to be a part of fixing this broken world, we need to learn to simply speak for ourselves.